|Album Rating: A|
Despite already being a fixture on his local circuit, Hubbert decided to forge his own path during a particularly rough spell following his parent's passing. Locking himself away for hours on end, he devoted himself to the art of flamenco guitar, far more difficult and far less traveled than the tormented singer-songwriter mould tried, tested and tired by so many before him. His intentions also differed. This wasn't a man intent on wallowing in his grief, but one who sought to use music as a means of therapy - a concept anyone who's witnessed one of his devastatingly open, yet endearingly positive live performances will have no trouble processing. After all, as he so aptly puts it: would you rather pay for a stranger to share your troubles with, or have strangers pay you for the pleasure? Rest assured, it's an arrangement which reaps dividends for both sides.
Given his music is predominantly instrumental, with narration and storytelling thus limited to pre-song chatter and sleeve notes, you'd be forgiven for assuming his recorded output lacks the resonance achieved on-stage before an audience. First & Last, his self-released debut, however, put paid to any such fears, earning a deal with Glasgow's premier indie label Chemikal Underground, and in doing so renewing acquaintances with old friends ahead of follow-up Thirteen Lost & Found. Sensational from beginning to end, this collaborative extravaganza - featuring Scottish mainstays such as Aidan Moffat, Emma Pollock and Alasdair Roberts - deservedly scooped last year's Scottish Album of the Year award (a new, hugely credible alternative to Britain's Mercury Prize) but for all of the artistic collisions it was perhaps telling that many of its finest moments were of Hubbert's own making.
Learning from peers and striding for improvement, it struck of a musician swelling in confidence, and crucially one equipped to deal with the exposure and expectation which has, and will continue to loom, especially now Breaks & Bone is with us. The final piece of his so-called 'ampersand trilogy,' this latest chapter marks a return to the solo setup exercised so well on First & Last, with producer Paul Savage's occasional studio trick and faint lick of synth on 'Bolt' the only outside contributions. To call it a backward step, though, would be erroneous in the extreme, since this record also holds the distinction of being the first to feature Hubbert's own voice. It's not a complete novelty - he's sung in bands before, and routinely covers collaborator's vocals during live shows - but it nevertheless represents a significant advance from previous works, ensuring each record remains a distinctly separate entity.
Of course, this development would not be so positive were in not handled so convincingly. Weary and limited, his voice hardly cuts that of a natural frontman, but a wise sense of restraint (only half of the album's tracks feature vocals) coupled with real lyrical potency set him firmly on the right track. For such an honest and expressive personality, words were never likely to be an issue, but even so the depth and hidden meaning here is mightily impressive. Take, for instance, 'Tongue Tied & Tone Deaf's refrain: "If life's a happy song, then we're tone deaf." On the surface, it resembles little more than standard depressive fodder, but this fails to acknowledge its subtle nod to Hubbert's beloved Muppets, along with the references to Mark Linkous, Charles Bukowski and Winston Churchill crammed into the rest of the song. It may not be the most upbeat composition, but it's hardly the work of an amateur, nor indeed humourless troubadour.
These elements certainly add a new dimension to its craft, but by and large the true genius of Breaks & Bone remains in its maker's relationship with his instrument, an affinity which continues to stagger both from a musician's and listener's perspective. It's not just the new techniques reeled out on numerous songs - it's also the gorgeous tone of his playing; the audible weight of emotion emitted with each note as his fingers pluck, twang and caress his strings to perfection. This wonderment is ever present. It's in the immense build on 'Son of Princess, Brother of Rambo,' which hits as hard as any sprawling post-rock epic. It's in the serene pace and cleanliness of 'Couch Crofting' and 'For Helen,' some of the purest sounds this side of Nick Drake, and it's in the percussive snap of 'Bolt' and 'Buckstacy' - although in truth you'd be pressed to find a single moment that's not completely dazzling.
For all the remedial reasons behind its existance, it's a record which deserves, and no doubt will be adored by so many besides RM Hubbert himself, and should ensure the wave of goodwill in his direction persists for some time yet. The most accomplished, creative and spectacular manifestation of his vision to date, it's one that'll feature in many an end of year discussion, and is frankly worth a place in anyone's collection. The link's below. You know what to do.
Should you need any more persuading, you can also stream it over at The Quietus.
1. Son of Princess, Brother of Rambo
3. Couch Crosting
4. Tongue Tied & Tone Deaf
5. Go Slowly
6. Feedback Loops
7. For Helen
8. Dec 11